The Tuesday Night Bloggers: Some lesser-known titles by Rex Stout

12435871_10206617807136697_1571551562_nA group of related bloggers who work in the general area of Golden Age Mysteries has decided to collaborate and publish a blog post every Tuesday as the Tuesday Night Bloggers. We began in the spirit of celebrating Agatha Christie’s 125th birthday anniversary. We’ve now going to continue with a different Golden Age mystery writer every month; Tuesdays in January will be devoted to Rex Stout.

Rex Stout’s lesser-known titles

A lot of my fellow bloggers will be focused on the exploits of Nero Wolfe, and deservedly so. Nero Wolfe is one of the greatest literary creations of the 20th century; the books are original, intelligent, emotionally resonant, and have that strange quirkiness that seems to convince everyone who reads them that there actually is a brownstone on West 35th and Wolfe is at this moment yelling at Archie about the germination cards.  I love the Nero Wolfe stories, all of them, and I expect to talk about at least one of them this month.  But Rex Stout wrote for many, many years, and produced some very interesting work before he settled into the corpus exclusively. There is a lot of merit (and some silliness) in these stories and you may want to experience them for yourself.  Here are some of the high spots.

Stout-Hand_in_GloveThe Hand in the Glove: A Dol Bonner Mystery (1937)

Let’s start with the very best. If, perish forbid, Stout had never thought of Nero Wolfe, we might today be discussing the merits of about 35 volumes of the exploits of Dol Bonner, and the entire course of detective fiction would have been changed.  The idea of a female private investigator, or investigator in any sense, was flirted with occasionally by perhaps a double handful of early writers, but no single character really caught the public’s attention (despite a strong showing from Erle Stanley Gardner’s Bertha Cool) until Marcia Muller’s first Sharon McCone novel transformed the genre in 1977.  (It’s called Edwin of the Iron Shoes, and it’s worth your time; remember, she was inventing what a later generation of writers took for granted.)

dell0177Rex Stout almost managed it, though. To this day I’m not sure just why Theodolinda “Dol” Bonner, running her own private investigation agency, didn’t catch on. To me, this novel is catchy and clever, and manages to balance strongly logical ratiocinative thinking with some powerful emotional work. It is literally a country house mystery; wealthy P. L. Storrs is surrounded by his family, his associates, and his neighbours at his country estate, Birchhaven, when he is found strangled by being hung from a
dell0177backtree with wire. This is the same thing that’s been happening at a neighbour’s game farm with pheasants and small animals, but Storrs’ death starts a furore that embroils everyone for miles and results in another death before Dol identifies the killer and threatens to shoot that person in the kneecap if a full confession is not forthcoming.  I don’t want to give too much of this away, but Dol is the only person who realizes the importance of a pair of gloves to a murder by wire, and goes looking for them.  She finds them inside a hollowed-out watermelon, and just exactly why and how makes for a fascinating few chapters.  Perhaps readers didn’t like that Dol is a self-declared “man-hater” who refuses romantic involvements coldly and vehemently; what we might describe today as a bristly and angry early feminist.  To me, that’s fascinating, but it might not have been what the reader of 1937 was looking for.  For whatever reason, this was the first and last Dol Bonner novel.  She reappears a couple of times later on in the corpus, notably The Mother Hunt where Archie needs female operatives to act as nursemaids, and she appears to have spent the rest of her life running her own agency. The source novel engendered a made-for-TV movie from 1992 called “Lady Against The Odds” which stars Crystal Bernard … I’m not a fan but it has its adherents.

I think this is a vitally important point in the history of the 20th century female private investigator novel and I urge you to find a copy for yourself. My own favourite is, as usual, the mapback version from Dell but the first edition is also strongly graphic and beautiful.  I gave a copy of this to a mystery writer friend of mine who intended to teach a university class on feminism and mysteries. Nora Kelly’s comment to me was, “Why does no one KNOW about this?” You may share her pleasure.

two_complete_detective_books_194303Three Tecumseh Fox mysteries

Tecumseh Fox mysteries are … meh. They’re well written and not stupid, but they’re missing some essential spark of vivacity that they require, and Stout had missed whatever it was.  Tecumseh Fox is a “quirky” private investigator but no one ever comes right out and says anything about him that makes much sense in that context. To me he just seems grumpy and unpredictable, but energetic and
doubledeathfrontinterested in solving his cases. The first one, Double for Death (1939) is everyone’s favourite but mine; I actually prefer both the other two, 1940’s Bad for Business and 1941’s The Broken Vase.  Double for Death has a bitterly ironic twist in its finish that everyone enjoys; for me the central clue is telegraphed. Both the other two exhibit more subtlety in clueing. Stout reworked Bad For Business as a Nero Wolfe novella, “Bitter End”, in the same year, so apparently he liked the idea but not the characters.  The location of the central clue is certainly amusing, and the puzzle depends upon the reader being quite acute about a casual remark by one minor character, which I like.

Some other mysteries

5636305009_5535c76c3f_bRed Threads is a 1939 mystery starring Inspector Cramer, Wolfe’s constant antagonist, who here is sympathetic and helpful. The protagonist is a young female fabric designer — she shares her avocation with Stout’s wife Pola, and so that part of it is intriguing and interesting and rings with truth.  There’s a bunch of hooey about what are called “Indians” (in my part of the world the preferred term is “First Nations”), and it is so stereotyped and awful that it seriously mars the book for me.  The book is centred around a romance and ends happily; Stout was good at writing those romantic stories, I think.

alphabet_hicksAlphabet Hicks (1941, also published as The Sound of Murder) is about a detective named Alphabet Hicks who is pretty much the same person as Tecumseh Fox.  He’s quirky and unpredictable but there is nothing real underneath the quirks.  His one outing depends, unfortunately, on convincing the reader that two people’s voices sound exactly the same and would be mistaken one for the other. That may be the case, but it’s a story that is hard to tell in the written word.

Stout-Mountain_CatThe Mountain Cat Murders (1939) is set in a small town in Wyoming and features a spunky young woman trying to solve the deaths of her father and mother. The “Mountain Cat” is a glamorous, wealthy, and often-married playgirl who is easily the most interesting character in the book; the mystery is competent but essentially dull. One point in the solution involving an illiterate miner is … far-fetched.

Two strange novels

438f09964bfb8f5e9e2764f9081e1eeeHonestly, I can’t recommend that you track down and read How Like A God, Stout’s “breakout novel” of 1929 that brought him to the public’s attention. It took me a few years to find a copy and I was almost sorry I’d found it, since the anticipation was much, much more pleasant than the achievement. This is a novel written in the second person, and I hope — sorry, you hope you’ll never have to go through that again, because you find it so damn disconcerting and unnecessary. It also has some of what a friend of mine calls “steamy bits” which are not as steamy as they must have been in 1929; as well, Stout seems to have been rather prudish about saying what he was getting at.

President_Vanishes1_fsMuch, much more interesting, I trust, is The President Vanishes, Stout’s one outing into the “political thriller”, published anonymously in 1934. There is a lot of stuff here that I wish I had the education in American history to be able to appreciate; it is clear that Stout is taking off “brownshirts” and fascism, and political laziness, and the far right wing. There is a lot of social history material here that I am only poorly equipped to grasp. What I do see is that Stout had the knack of writing a suspenseful thriller; if he had started writing them later on into their history, I think he would have produced some good ones.  There was a money-losing eponymous film made the same year; the film was protested by a Catholic morality organization for no really good reason that I can see, but again, this is social history beyond my knowledge. The book itself you may find boring and antique; I would actually agree but gee, there are the bones of a damn good book buried in there.

fb3c7e06498c97959796b4e5a674141414d6741There are other novels and stories; I understand that a very early story whose events form the basis for Fer-de-Lance and a few uncollected pieces have just very recently been collected, so there’s something out there for even the most well-read Stoutian. There is a strange “lost world adventure” called Under the Andes from 1914, there are a couple of what I think of as Oppenheimerish Ruritanian romantic stories, and just generally a handful of stories from the slicks that don’t prefigure much of the excellence which Stout was preparing to achieve with Nero Wolfe. Nothing especially stands out unless you happen to be interested in the cognates of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Pellucidar stories. And finally, Forest Fire (1933) is a novel with some early LGBT interest that may make you think of Rod Steiger in The Sergeant; it’s tough going as a novel, though, especially since this is another one where Stout is being oblique and prudish.



Ten interesting Agatha Christie novels

agatha-christieTo commemorate the 125th birthday anniversary of Agatha Christie (September 15, 2015) her estate commissioned a world-wide poll to find out what’s the World’s Favourite Christie. You can find the results here at, as well as interesting background and links to other interesting stuff. However, I’ll reproduce an ordered list here for your convenience.

  1. And Then There Were None (which has sold more than one hundred million copies)
  2. Murder on the Orient Express
  3. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd
  4. Death on the Nile
  5. The ABC Murders
  6. A Murder is Announced
  7. 4:50 From Paddington
  8. Evil Under the Sun
  9. Five Little Pigs
  10. Curtain: Poirot’s Last Case

This announcement was followed closely by an article in the Guardian by well-known crime/thriller writer Val McDermid wherein she claimed that The Murder at the Vicarage — which you will note didn’t make the list — is “the best Christie as opposed to the most popular”. You can read it for yourself here. McDermid talks about her childhood experience with this particular book as her introduction to detective fiction, and that she had read it again and again.  This  makes me think that, like my childhood experience with John Dickson Carr‘s The Red Widow Murders that has given me a lifetime’s affection for what is essentially a mediocre thriller, her childhood experience might be colouring her opinion. But TMATV is really a very, very good mystery, unlike Red Widow.

Both pieces caused a small flurry of discussion in my Facebook group devoted to Golden Age detection. There was the usual back-and-forth about the relative positioning of novels on the list, or the presence or absence of a particular title. What it made me think about was what was being championed. McDermid was clear that she wanted to talk about “the best-written Christie” whereas the Christie estate called it “favourite”. Similarly my colleagues and friends in Facebook and the blogosphere had worthwhile things to say about a number of Christie novels and suggestions for what their own top-ten list might contain.

Agatha-Christie-pictured--002I thought it might be useful to take a more consumer-oriented look with a slightly different focus, based on my self-selected role as a “curator” of such things. Sometimes I conceive of my role as a kind of consumer advocate, to be sure; “This book is worth your time/money/effort and this one is not.” But I also think part of my role is to bring to a knowledgeable readership things which will not necessarily make the top ten list, like novels with flaws or problems, but which reveal something interesting about the author, or are an attempt to try something new — even a magnificent failure here and there.

Here, therefore, is my list of “Ten interesting Agatha Christie novels”. I will say emphatically that these are in no particular order; in fact, they’re all about equal. Perhaps if you’ve finished someone else’s choices for the top ten you might move on to these. And of course I’ll provide a reason as to why a particular volume might pique your interest. The top ten are in no danger of being ignored, but these you might have overlooked.

119865642_6books_375265cThe Murder at the Vicarage (1930)

I’ll step right up to the plate and agree with Val McDermid. This is the first Miss Marple novel and it is the one in which her character is the most “pure”; she is described as being “dangerous”. This is not the fluffy and slightly scattered little old lady of later years. This is a woman with a mind like a steel trap and an acute sense of the squalid lives and minor-league wickedness of nearly everyone in her vicinity. And it is, as I’ve remarked elsewhere recently, a novel of manners. Okay, not Jane Austen, but certainly the central focus of the book is a scandalous love affair.

christie_crooked-houseCrooked House (1949)

A non-series standalone mystery with a truly surprising plot twist at the end. Christie herself spoke of it as one of her personal favourites and it’s one of mine also. There’s not much to it, plot-wise; a wealthy patriarch supports a large family of eccentrics and when he is murdered, there’s a long list of suspects.  It has a similar solution to an earlier Ellery Queen novel that I will not closely identify, just to say that it’s clear that Christie didn’t do this first. But she cleverly uses the reader’s assumptions against him/her.

482b49a5680ac8ced684e8847696fa26Death Comes as the End (1945)

This is a historical mystery set in ancient Egypt, and it reads surprisingly well. Christie was at this point married to archaeologist Sir Max Mallowan, so I’m ready to believe that the details are correct. What is surprising and pleasant about this novel is that it is very restrained about those details; it’s not so much about the details of Pharaoh’s court but more like where and how food is kept in a large household of the period. The mystery is not difficult but the book is quite engaging.

UnknownEndless Night (1967)

I’m sure many experienced readers will disagree with this being on anyone’s “best” list. It’s not on mine either. This is, however, a book with a plot twist that is overshadowed by Christie having used it before, but which is still a solid hoodwinking of the reader. It is flawed, partly by Christie having not really understood at this late point in her life what young people were taking for granted and partly by most people having first experienced it through a ghastly filmed version that ruthlessly sucked the intelligence out of the work. But I encourage its naysayers to give it another look; the concept is great, the writing is head and shoulders most books she wrote at this late stage, and it showed she was ready to try something new and different.

Unfinished_Portrait_First_Edition_CoverUnfinished Portrait (1934)

As by Mary Westmacott. Simply put, this is what an Agatha Christie novel reads like when she hasn’t put a murder into it; a story about a shy girl who is in the middle of a divorce who comes to terms with her past. You may think this has something in parallel with Christie’s own life. I think it’s interesting that she wrote this nearly simultaneously with Murder on the Orient Express. I’m not going to claim that Christie was in any sense held back by writing about series characters, but I think much of her non-series work has a more casual tone that suits her writing skills very well.

SpidersWebFinalweb1Spider’s Web (2000)

As novelized by Charles Osborne. I would actually recommend that you seek out a theatrical production of this play on video, if you can find one; it was originally written as a play specifically for Margaret Lockwood and it’s a wonderful starring vehicle for a 30-something actress. It’s also an interesting experience for a Christie aficionado because it recycles ideas and materials from a handful of other Christie short stories and novels, and it’s fun to think, “Oh, THAT’s from that short story about the movie star…”  The mystery is clever and the characterization is excellent. The Charles Osborne version seems to postpone all the tension in the book to a series of revelations at the end of the novel, boom boom boom like a fireworks display, but the play is balanced and fun. I do regret the addition of the character of the adolescent girl — generally, not an appealing aspect to an on-stage production for me — but apparently Margaret Lockwood’s real-life daughter was supposed to play the role.

12-hollowThe Hollow (1946)

This is a Poirot novel in which Christie later mentioned she wished she hadn’t included Poirot. I’m not sure if this would have made it better or worse. I do think this could have been a magnificent novel if she had taken more care in writing it. The character of Henrietta Savernake is beautifully written and wonderfully realistic; so much better-written than the rest of the novel that it’s quite jarring.  In particular the character of Lady Angkatell is … well, to me, just awful. Cardboard with a sign around her neck that says “eccentric peeress”. One great character, one terrible character, all adds up to a sadly flawed novel. But the central premise, the identity of the murderer, takes me back to an Anthony Berkeley novel I read not too long ago in which the author is playful with the idea of the “least likely suspect”. I think people have overlooked just how clever this novel is in that respect. Robert Barnard joins me in esteeming this one.

8849123536_95d37523a0The Big Four (1927)

As I noted above, I do like the occasional magnificent failure. This failure isn’t even really magnificent, but it is of interest to the student of vanished literary sub-genres. This is a novel of “international intrigue and espionage”, with which we certainly do not associate Agatha Christie as an expert. But this is a bizarre and highly melodramatic thrill-ride which I don’t believe anyone is meant to take seriously, and this particular type of novel pretty much vanished at about this time. It’s rather like E. Phillips Oppenheim or Edgar Wallace; vast international criminal conspiracies and the highest political stakes, and poor Hercule Poirot seems rather out of place. This is also cobbled together out of a set of short stories, which doesn’t happen much these days; it produces wild shifts in tone and atmosphere and these things disconcert the reader. The high points are the presence of Vera Rossakoff and the only appearance of Poirot’s twin brother Achille.

UnknownN or M? (1941)

The material in this novel of Tommy and Tuppence Beresford interests me because it’s one of Christie’s few attempts to deal directly with World War II. Poirot and Marple, we know, did not serve their country in any way other than solving mysteries while the constabulary was at war. The Beresfords did their bit as government agents, however, and this novel contains quite a bit of background colour about daily life in wartime, with rationing and black-out curtains and all. Unfortunately Christie chose to focus on the espionage aspect rather than a straightforward mystery and the result is somewhat tepid and inevitable. (If there is a wartime British novel wherein the triumph over German spies is not a 100% certainty, I’d like to see it.)

Ten Little Niggers (1939)

Let me say right off the bat, I don’t like that word any more than you do. But given the fact that it is the original title of the book that the Christie estate has just finished declaring is the favourite Christie novel (now known as And Then There Were None), and it’s sold 100,000,000 copies, I think it should be a point of honour for the true Christie student to track this down and see how this book originated. I have said elsewhere and will repeat here that I don’t think it is a good idea to censor history. It is important to say, when we are forced to use that distasteful word, that it is merely to remind ourselves that people used to use this word and we do not use it today; simply put, we have to know what we hate about this word’s meaning and history in order to combat it more effectively. If we bowdlerize it out of the literature then we run the risk of future generations thinking of this sort of linguistic bullying as something new and fresh, rather than something that has been disparaged by correct-thinking people in the intervening generations.

That being said — once its title was mercifully changed, this is a superb novel. If you have only seen adaptations on television, you’d be well advised to go back and find out how it all got started because, indeed, it was made much more cheery for stage and video productions. In the original, there is no happy ending; there is no love story. And there are more murders committed or disclosed in this one novel than in any other Christie title, or indeed a random half-dozen Christie titles added together. All the characters are unpleasant criminals and there’s a kind of morbid pall, and fear of retribution, that hangs over the novel very effectively.

And so I’ll throw this open to my audience. What Agatha Christie novels do you particularly cherish that have been left off top ten lists? What have we all overlooked in Christie’s work that we ought to have read?

The Tall House Mystery, by A. Fielding (1933)

The Tall House Mystery, by A. Fielding (1933)

Author: Possibly the most interesting mystery connected with this novel is the identity of A. Fielding, sometimes A. E. Fielding. Many sources give the A. as standing for Archibald, but there is also a body of opinion that suggests that Lady Dorothie Mary Evelyn Moore, nee Feilding (note the spelling difference), is responsible. This material would seem to suggest that Lady Dorothie cannot be the author — her grandson agrees that it’s not possible (see the comments section of the previous post linked in the first paragraph). Eminent mystery critic and blogger Curtis Evans suggests here, not entirely seriously I think, that since Lady Dorothie and Agatha Christie lived in the same street at the same time, Dame Agatha may have published under this pseudonym. I think it’s possible we’ll never know; your guess is as good as mine. Curtis Evans sums up the available evidence well and his article is worth your time if you’re interested.

imagePublication Data: This novel is in the public domain, at least for this Canadian, and I found a digital facsimile copy at Hathi Trust Digital Library, here.  The cover page, which I have reproduced for your visual interest since so few editions are available to show you, tells me that A. L. Burt published this book by arrangement with H. C. Kinsey & Co., another American publisher. No copies are available for sale that I could find on the Internet, at least of any edition prior to 2014. Below you will find a copy of the cover for a print-on-demand edition from CreateSpace under an imprint of “Resurrected Press”.

About this book:

Spoiler warning: What you are about to read will give away large chunks of information about the plot and characters of this murder mystery. Please read no further if you wish to preserve your ignorance of its details. You will also probably find here discussions of the content of other murder mysteries, perhaps by other authors, and a similar warning should apply. 

As is so often the case, the romantic involvements of a beautiful young woman drive this mystery. Miss Winnie Pratt, who today would be called a debutante, is being introduced to society under the guardianship of her mother, Mrs. Pratt. Winnie is an extraordinary beauty and has attracted the attention of many eligible bachelors. When she expresses a desire to stay “in town” in “a really old house with genuine period furnishings”, one young man finds a way to make that happen. A young solicitor, Moy, has a client who has such a furnished house for rent for a short period. The house is in Chelsea and is spoken of as having housed Angelica Kauffman and with a ceiling possibly painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds, which would make it approximately from the period 1760 to 1780. Apparently there are enough bedrooms on a single floor to house the party, so that the troupe of servants hired as a group from a vacationing householder will not be unduly stressed.  Moy has plans for himself and four other young men to rent Tall House each for a week and host Mrs. and Miss Pratt as their guests. The five renters include Moy, the very wealthy Mr. Haliburton, the silent and vaguely creepy Mr. Tark, mathematician and scientific writer Charles Ingram (whose half-brother Freddie is involved, but not as a renter), and Charles’s university roommate Gilmour, a civil servant. Charles and Haliburton are the principal suitors for Miss Pratt’s affections and the others are involved out of what might be politeness, or a sense of fun. Ingram is a well-known writer and expert on, among other things, codes and cyphers; Haliburton is enormously wealthy, and either will be a good match for the lovely Winnie.

When the party begins, Mrs. Pratt soon reveals that her preference is for her daughter to marry Haliburton and his money, rather than Ingram and his brains, and she asks Gilmour to stop encouraging Ingram’s pursuit of Winnie. Gilmour tells her that he himself has fallen in with the house rental in order to have a place to bring his own intended bride, Alfreda Longstaff, under the chaperonage of Mrs. Pratt; he hasn’t known Alfreda well or for long, but he tells Mrs. Pratt of his hope to marry her. Mrs. Pratt agrees to chaperone Miss Longstaff and gives Gilmour the impression that she is determined that Winnie’s marriage shall bring Haliburton’s money to Winnie, apparently because it is badly needed. Meanwhile, Ingram is working away furiously but secretively on his latest manuscript, some sort of mathematical or code-related treatise.

largeAs we meet Alfreda Longstaff, she reveals herself to be quite a different character than the beautiful but somewhat dim Winnie. Alfreda feels she is wasting away in her rural surroundings and longs to have a career of some sort. She’s also rather more displeased with the attentions of Gilmour than this gentleman knows. Apparently he came to rural Bispham and attracted her attentions for a month, then vanished without word. When he reappears abruptly some time later and announces his intention to marry her, she appears to agree — anything to escape Bispham! — but her internal monologue tells us that she is galled at having been ignored for so long and doesn’t really love Gilmour. Instead, since she has recently met a London journalist on the golf course, she wants to somehow find a “scoop” and thereby wangle a newspaper job. She tells Gilmour that she’ll stay with him at Tall House but promises nothing except to come to town for a fortnight.

Gilmour tells his fellow members of the rental syndicate about his affection for Alfreda and that he expects to marry her; Gilmour is apparently not picking up on the firm line of Alfreda’s mouth and the subtext that is clear to the reader, and we expect a future disappointment for Gilmour. Ingram’s half-brother Frederick is revealed to be short of money and is coming around to touch Charles for a fiver (and has done so on frequent occasions); Ingram also supports his brother-in-law Appleton, a former actor, in minor ways.

The house party’s mood is not enlivened by Alfreda’s arrival; indeed, the reader learns that Winnie is actually jealous of Gilmour’s obvious affection for the athletic but relatively unlovely Alfreda, and unaccountably means to encourage Gilmour’s attentions (much to the horror of her mother, since Gilmour has only his civil service salary). Alfreda, meanwhile, is engaged in a mysterious errand that involves her masquerading as a Miss Grey at a boarding house in Hammersmith and scraping acquaintance with a large middle-aged lady named Mrs. Findlay by pretending to be interested in Mrs. Findlay’s passion for disarmament. Mrs. Findlay is dubious, thinking that perhaps Alfreda is interested in a sum of money into which Mrs. Findlay has recently come, and asks the landlady to cooperate in helping her to avoid Alfreda.

A week after the arrival of Alfreda, the house party begins to discuss ghosts one night and it is revealed that Tall House, like many such antique homes, is said to be haunted, although by whom and for what reason is not mentioned. Gilmour reveals that if he sees a ghost he is likely to shoot at it since he had an unfortunate childhood experience with someone dressing up as a ghost, and ever since has been infuriated by ghost-related pranks. Of course, as the reader by now expects, a shot rings out in the middle of the night. Gilmour is found with a gun in his hand and dead on the floor nearby, wound in a sheet, is the mathematical Mr. Ingram.

Gilmour immediately reveals that he thought his pistol was loaded with blanks, before the arrival of Inspector Pointer. Alfreda also tells Gilmour that she cannot now marry him, much to his surprise, and she immediately races to a telephone to phone in the scoop to her newspaper friend. Now, at this point, I’ll be much less specific about plot developments; I think it’s likely that you will enjoy reading this book and I don’t want to spoil its surprises for you. I will say, though, that experienced mystery readers will immediately discount Gilmour as having been set up by a clever murderer; the fact that the bullet hole in the sheet around the deceased Ingram is in a very odd orientation will add to your suspicions. Added to which, it seems as though everyone in the house is searching for some mysterious slips of paper that Ingram had produced in his work, and we haven’t been told much about why. Two are found with some mysterious columns of words on them, “VON/OF/DE” and “HELL/LIGHT/CLAIRE”. Another slip appears to be a shred of cheap wallpaper. But the search for more slips of paper continues, even after all the secret compartments sewn into Ingram’s clothing are found empty. The value of various of the slips of paper becomes apparent two-thirds of the way through the book; it’s not exactly a red herring, but it won’t take you to the solution. Only a very, VERY careful reading of what people say to each other, and whether it is attested to or confirmed by others, will do that.

The clues take the clever Inspector Pointer to various London locations and eventually to a casino on the continent, but it is a small out-of-the-way cottage that reveals another corpse and an exciting finish, where Pointer must knock out a disguised murderer before a third life is lost.

41ykquzHhtL._SX200_Why is this book worth your time?

I’ll be honest and say that my expectations of this volume were not high. Although I hadn’t read a Fielding mystery before, I’d been told that they were from the Humdrum school so well represented by its foremost practitioner, Freeman Wills Croft. I rather felt that, had Freeman’s novels been truly superior examples of the kind of thing that Crofts did so well (an investigation by a police officer doggedly tracking down the clues to a surprise ending), they would have survived and been more enthusiastically reprinted. An eminent critic and the world’s expert on Humdrum mysteries, Curtis Evans, reviewed two Fielding mysteries earlier this year and gave them only faint praise (his reviews are here and here and his speculations about Fielding’s identity are linked in the first paragraph of this post), as does another recent review found here of this specific volume.

But as I progressed through the pages, I found myself quite charmed by the writing. I like to read mysteries of this vintage as much for their explication of the social background of their period as for the puzzle, and I found myself interested in both. The puzzle aspects are frequent and enigmatic. When I mentally lined up the slips with the mysterious words, I found that the phrases “Light of” and “Claire de” popped out at me, and this is precisely the sort of deduction that I enjoy making in the course of reading an old mystery. What they meant wasn’t clear to me until much later, but I was looking for connections with the word “moon” furiously for the remainder of the novel. There are similar puzzle aspects, little clues dropped here and there that, at a distance of 75 years, it’s obvious are meant to confuse and mislead. Mysterious slips of paper, secret pockets, Alfreda’s mysterious activities with the perhaps-disguised Mrs. Findlay — these are the puzzle aspects of old mysteries that I find charming and enticing, and there are plenty of them here.

The other part is the social history background, and again there is plenty here. It is difficult for us to realize at this remove that, in 1933, crossword puzzles were such a new phenomenon that newspapers used crossword competitions to boost circulation, and offered prizes of £2,500 at a time when you could live on the proverbial £50 a year that impoverished young women were always seeking to improve in mysteries of the period. This is rather like the potential to win a million dollars by competing on Survivor, and perhaps it’s the re-valuing of the pound that makes it less obvious to today’s reader, but this is very serious business. What would you do to win a competition that yielded 20 or 25 years’ salary? Similarly, the plight of Alfreda, whose parents cannot afford to educate her for a trade and must merely hope that she marries well, is hard to understand but interesting. The quest for financial independence is a theme throughout this book — the victim’s relatives who touch him for a fiver (doesn’t sound like much, but again, look at it in terms of £50 a year), Mrs. Pratt’s desperation for Winnie to marry money, and some of the underlying motives for the murderous actions that I think it’s better that I don’t tell you. Also there’s the underlying situation — five single men who rent an old house and fill it with servants (and give a couple of balls) simply to amuse a beautiful woman whom a couple of them hope to marry? That’s not the way we do things in the 21st century, and I rather doubt it’s the way most people did things in the 1930s. But it’s quirky and intriguing and a good story hook, and I enjoyed the clever mind that thought of it.

Other commentators have remarked that Fielding is a sloppy writer who will sacrifice a lot of believability for the sake of a tricky and surprising ending. I have to say that although I have noticed sloppy writing in a couple of other Fielding novels that I’ve read recently, courtesy of Hathi Trust, this one didn’t especially annoy me at any particular point. Yes, some of the plot twists are unbelievable, but to me the plot twists were no more difficult to accept than, say, the “Ruritanian romance” plots of  E. Phillips Oppenheim or the wild adventures of Edgar Wallace, both from about the same point in time. Fielding wasn’t necessarily trying to be believable, but to amuse, and — I was amused. I was certainly surprised by the ending, and that is not an experience I have often with detective fiction … the identity of the murderer was actually a surprise to me, and I felt instinctively a rather fair one. Perhaps I’m credulous; perhaps I was reading too quickly. Perhaps my ability to suspend my disbelief has grown greater over the years. Perhaps I was fooled by my generally low expectations into thinking that because certain characters were depicted as socially unattractive that the plotting habits of the period would also reveal them to be criminals. But after decades of mystery-reading and thousands and thousands of books, I’m not often fooled, and I was fooled. And I enjoyed it! I’m not saying that this is a puzzle plot with the skill and depth of, say, Anthony Berkeley. Once I realized how I’d been fooled, I went back and looked and found it wasn’t — well, not 100% fair play. You have to be paying very close attention to see how the author works the trick, and it’s a question of a tiny shift of viewpoint that’s very subtle. But I’m someone who has failed to be fooled by everyone from Carolyn Keene to Agatha Christie, and if it takes a little unfair play for me to have the rare and enjoyable experience of being fooled, I’ll concur.

I think you might enjoy this novel if you’re an experienced reader of detective fiction; paradoxically, I think you won’t manage to enjoy it as much if you are a newbie, although you’ll definitely be fooled by the ending. It’s not a great mystery, but it has charm and some skill, it’s an interesting period piece and I liked it.

Notes for the Collector:

As I noted above, I cannot locate a copy of this novel available for sale other than a print-on-demand edition from 2014. And, of course, it is available for your reading pleasure on the internet from Hathi Trust. I did a brief search for other Fielding novels from the 1920s and 1930s and found that, as usual, condition and the presence of a jacket will lift these novels from the $15 range to perhaps the $70-$90 range. I must say that the jacketed copies I’ve seen of various Fielding novels seem to me to be aesthetically very pleasant and much above the general range of contemporaneous jackets; really very pretty work with good design and colours that may have faded over time but are still attractive. If you want a reading copy, well, it’s free. If you want a collectible copy, good luck finding one.

2014 Vintage Mystery Bingo:

This 1933 volume qualifies as a Golden Age mystery; third under “N”, “Read one book with a size in the title.” I am not myself a “Tall” but I’ll claim it as a clothing size almost out of desperation. I have to confess I have been stymied by this category and up until recently was entirely unable to think of a qualifying novel; I am indebted to Linda Bertland, writing at Philly Reader, for having reviewed it before me to fall under the same category in the same challenge. Ordinarily I try to select books for review where I can show you a number of editions, but “Needs must when the devil drives.” My apologies for the lack of visual references.